Existential Analysis: how I work with you

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I first read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” – a classic existential novel – when I was nineteen.  From a place of teenage angst it struck a chord with me as I recognised the overwhelming sensitivities I felt at the time and typically kept to myself.  Sartre speaks of experiencing the world in a felt way; a way that many sensitive individuals experience but keep to themselves, rarely entering discussion.  The vividness of what it is to be alive, in the moment, surrounded by a world and society that is often false, guarded, hiding behind the roles we adopt and that we play with one another, like actors in a continuous theatre production.  For those sensitive to the surreal pantomime of everyday life, we can long for truth, authenticity, genuineness even when we don’t quite know what fuels the longing.

“Awareness in itself is healing.”

Frederick Perls

Existential Analysis

Existential Analysis is a form of psychotherapy that has developed since Freud’s lifetime as a response to his Psychoanalysis.  It is not a fixed system repeated by each practitioner, but is instead a way for each therapist to draw on existential philosophies (such as Sartre’s and others’) and a method on enquiry called phenomenology to form honest, authentic relationships with their patients.  The individual human being is understood as a multi-dimensional, unique, free agent struggling to meet his or her needs against the forces within and around us, not least of which is existential angst or anxiety.  Angst is viewed, not as a pathological symptom, but as a defining characteristic of Being, which we experience in relation to our awareness of our individual life being finite, our need for meaning, our experiential separateness from others, and our freedom to choose from a multitude of possibilities.  Our tasks as individuals is to take full ownership of our choices and our life by developing our awareness, meaning, values and skilfulness in order to honestly address our physical, mental, relationship and spiritual needs.  Each practitioner of Existential Analysis works in his or her own unique way, with some employing a broad range of psychological theories, models and therapeutic methods within an existential framework of understanding.

  • The above video is a very academic interpretation of Existential Analysis.  In practice the therapy is much more pragmatic, easy to understand and clear.

First Steps

The first step is an informal meeting that allows us to get a sense of one another in order to determine whether there’s potential to establish a relationship of trust, mutual respect and understanding that could enable us to work effectively together.  This is very much a gut-feeling kind of process that we both try to sense in our first informal meeting, whether that is face to face or via Skype for example.

Assessing Your Needs, History and Circumstances

If it feels ok for both of us to continue we’d get together again and do a thorough assessment.  This involves gathering up as much information about your life as possible: your history, values, how you see yourself, medications, relationships an so on.  I do this using my own assessment form as well as discussing things with you in detail, listening carefully to what you need and coming to an understaning of your situation by taking into consideration all of the different pieces of information to be evaluated.  Once the assessment is complete and I have a clear idea of what is happening and what you want out of therapy I give you a detailed picture of my understanding.  Once we establish an accurate picture you then have a choice of whether or not you would like to start working together on your chosen area.

I’ve no interest in imposing ideas or notions of ‘normality’ on people.  I think the world does enough of that already.  Our work together is not about judging you but about collaborating together so that we form the best understanding at any given moment.  This relies on our mutual honesty with one another – a genuine committment to being truthful with one another – and I welcome and encourage you to tell me when I get something right and when I get it wrong; what helps and what doesn’t; what you actually think and feel.  In this way we create an authentic therapeutic way of relating that allows us to build more trust and a deeper understanding, opens up new possibilities and insight, and allows us to use our time to best effect.

Methods

My formulation of Existential Analysis involves the use of a wide variety of ideas, methods and approaches to understanding and problem solving and expressing experiences from the whole person (mind and body) that I have developed over the past twenty years.  I am always developing my practice, and stay open to new ways of approaching the work, including suggestions that you might want to make.  The core concern that remains unchanged in my work is a committment to personal authenticity and honesty in the relationship.  I believe that when we are willing to be courageous enough to reveal ourselves truthfully then we create therapeutic conditions that allow change, discovery, learning, growth and personal integrity to develop.  Being truthful about what we genuinely experience from moment to moment takes us out of our heads and into our senses, allowing us to bring our full attention to how we relate to one another as whole human beings.

Here are some of the methods I use to help patients develop their courage to get in touch with their genuine experience within the therapeutic relationship:

  • Written work: journals, specific diary exercises, therapeutic task sheets, support plans that help you create a kind of road map of where you’re going, and therapeutic writing
  • Art work: drawing, painting and any kind of visual media that might allow you to access feelings or memories and explore them in a non-threatening way; this and other methods that allow you to keep painful or distressing experiences at ‘arms-length’ can be used as first steps towards examining and integrating these types of experiences and difficult memories in a safe, graded way.
  • Monodrama: this involves re-enacting an event or idea or dream and putting yourself in the shoes of someone or something in that event or dream.  This is an excellent way to access solutions and discover blind spots that are not so obvious through normal discussion
  • Talking: the most obvious vehicle for doing therapy, but it can be much more than discussion.  Experimenting with sentences, affirmations and things that you may be ‘saying’ with your body are a few of the ways we can use talking in creative and therapeutic ways.
  • Film, music, art and literature: using films, music, art and literature as a way of exploring ideas and possibilities that come up in therapy
  • Somatic Experience/ Body work: I’m also a qualified yoga instructor and regularly use specific yoga postures and breathing exercises to enhance body awareness, release stress and manage anxiety, helping you train your body to respond with greater calm and composure to difficult situations and experiences.  Somatic therapy also helps you release old unexpressed emotions that we tend to hold in the body as tension, allowing people to let go of the old and be more open to new experiences.
  • Meditation: I use a wide variety of meditation techniques to help you develop awareness and cultivate states of calmness and transparency in your daily life
  • Guided awareness: I use a variety of methods to guide your awareness to greater acceptance, relaxation and visualisation of helpful states of mind or ‘safe spaces’ that you create in order to better manage stress, tension or difficult experiences.
  • Tackling problem situations together: sometimes it can be helpful to visit a situation together so that we can work through whatever problems you’re having in specific locations.  For example, anxiety states or phobias associated with being outside or in crowded places, talking to strangers etc.
  • Your chosen medium: if you are interested in photography, writing, painting, music or writing, I would encourage your use of these and other creative media in the service of your therapy.  During sessions you’re welcome to bring anything along that can help us understand and explore your perspective.
  • Emotional intelligence and healing trauma: I use a variety of methods to help you access your emotions in safe, gentle ways.  This can include very painful emotions from past events or traumas.  In such instances I would pay particular attention to a. teaching you specific techniques for making you feel safe and grounded; b teaching you specific techniques for looking at painful events safely; c. helping you establish a strong foundation or ‘safe place’ before d. using the least invasive or emotive methods to explore past trauma in very small periods of time.  With such work we go at a pace that is right for you, taking great care to ensure that you are not ‘re-traumatised’.

These are just a few of the tools that are available to us in any work we might undertake.  I approach each patient as a unique person with unique requirements and do my best to tailor what I offer you at each stage of your development or progress throughout the work.  Therapeutic work is then only limited by our imaginations, with the work amounting to a creative process of discovery and learning.

Structure and Format

In keeping with this approach of flexibility and creativity I also do my best to collaborate with you to create the best possible therapy format and support structure for your needs and particular circumstances so that you get therapy delivered in a way that gives you the best chance of success.  This can involve varying the frequency of sessions, using different ways of undertaking the sessions, providing specific kinds of support between sessions, and other ways of creating support provision for times of stress or urgency outside normal hours.

A scene from the inspirational film “Dead Poet’s Society” in which the tutor – played by the late, great Robin Williams –  teaches one of the fundamental existential truths to his students: the importance of treasuring each moment of our very short life.  Watching this film is a therapeutic exercise in itself.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. J♡ says:

    Are you familiar with EMDR? If so, what are your thoughts on the effectiveness of using it in treatment?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Hi J. Yes I’m familiar with EMDR and believe it can be useful for certain problems. I haven’t used it in my practice though. Is it something you’ve experienced?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. J♡ says:

        Hi Stephen. Yes, I have experienced this treatment to help with ptsd. I’m not sure if it was helpful or not, to be honest. I do remember those sessions being emotionally draining though.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Stephen says:

        I tend to approach PTSD in a different way. I know EMDR can sometimes work but I personally wouldn’t rely on one technique. PTSD, like everything else, is a clinical name given to your particular set of experiences and those experiences have to be looked at in a way that is unique to you, even though some people will approach it a bit like a medical illness with specific treatment models. Did you also take additional steps for your PTSD?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. J♡ says:

    I agree. It’s been several years, but I believe it was probably just talk therapy. I had other issues going on at the time that felt more pressing and we sort of drifted towards those instead during sessions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      I understand. There are specific things you can do with PTSD. But in a broad sense I’d be thinking about establishing a secure foundation of present awareness and groundedness that the person can then use to begin to look at difficult experiences in the gentlest way, moving back and forth between the foundation of here-and-now awareness and the there-and-then of the difficult experiences, for example. You can do this using a variety of techniques that help the person distance themselves from the experience and gradually face it step by step in their own time. Writing can actually be quite a nice way to start that process, as can art media for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. J♡ says:

    Stephen, that sounds like a great approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Thanks J. There’s a lot you can do yourself to work on the foundational part I mentioned. Email me if I can help at all. Take care for now

      Liked by 1 person

      1. J♡ says:

        Thank you so much!!

        Liked by 1 person

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